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Author Richard Light Explores Jewish Rites Of Death

on September 8, 2017 - 7:21am
Richard A. Light spoke on his latest book ‘Jewish Rites of Death - Stories of Beauty and Transformation’ Aug. 24 at Mesa Public Library. Photo by Bonnie J. Gordon/

Los Alamos Daily Post

Author Richard A. Light spoke about his latest book “Jewish Rites of Death - Stories of Beauty and Transformation” Aug. 24 at Mesa Public Library.

The book won a Nautilus Prize for the 2016-17 Season. Nautilus Prizes are awarded for books that transcend barriers of culture, gender, race, and class, and promote conscious living and green values, spiritual growth, wellness and vitality, and positive social change.

Light views life “as a mystery to be lived.” His book explores the ultimate mystery, death, and how Jewish rites and traditions bridge the unknowable region where life meets death.

The book both explains Jewish customs and practices and explores how participation in these rituals has brought transformation and growth to those who are involved in them. The book includes essays, stories, poems, personal narratives and photographs. More than 20 people contributed to the book. The photographs are by Light’s daughter, Thea.

Most Jewish communities have special teams of people who are responsible for the rituals that deal with the body of the deceased called a Chevrah Kadisha. For 18 years, Light was president of a Chevrah Kadisha he started in 1996 in northern New Mexico.

For Light, “death is a powerful and meaningful doorway” and in performing the Taharah rituals that prepare the body for burial and send the spirit on its journey to the next phase, one can explore the luminal space between life and death, Light said. The Chevrah Kadisha serve as midwives, birthing the soul into a different world, he explained.

“We presume the soul is in the room watching what we do,” Light said. “We reassure the soul that its work here is done.”

Care of the dead is perhaps the ultimate mitzvah or “good deed”.

“Those who choose to honor the dead are helping those who cannot thank them,” Light said.

The Taharah ritual begins with the washing of the body, Light explained. Following this, the body is spiritually purified either in a ritual bath (mikvah) or by pouring 24 quarts of clean water over the body in a continuous stream. The deceased is then dressed in special garments. These simple clothes are identical for every Jew, symbolizing equality in death. The deceased is then placed in a casket under a burial sheet.

Light’s book contains writings on the entire spectrum of Jewish ritual around death, from visiting the sick to burial. Judaism is a community-based religion. The entire community participates in the mourning process, beginning with filling in the grave. Each mourner puts a shovel full of dirt on the coffin, Light explained. This is followed by the meal of consolation provided for mourners by the community. This meal begins the seven days of shiva, during which family members devote themselves to mourning. During this period, community members provide food and emotional support to the mourners. A 30-day period follows, in which mourners gradually ease back into life.

Although there is other material about the actual liturgy and rituals, Light wanted to explore the experience of those involved with carrying out the customs that surround the Jewish way of death.

“I felt that nobody knew what it felt like to do this work,” he said. “The result was this book.”